As adults, we regularly are faced with things that scare us, things we have been afraid of happening that finally become a reality: death, dying, the loss of a loved one, tragic accidents, debilitating diseases, loss of control, addiction, depression…the list goes on. What scares us changes as we grow older and thus our capacity for and understanding of fear deepens.
As members of a faith community, we regularly are called to extend a hand to one another as we survive these experiences. It’s hard to know how to do that. As a pastor, it is one of the questions I am asked the most: “What do I do? What should I say?”. When we see a loved one, a friend, a fellow struggler, a family member in pain and in the throes of loss, we want most to comfort them and try to “make it better”.
We are fixers by nature and by culture. Our popular culture and economy surround us with the message that age is bad, pain is unacceptable, and sadness is to be avoided at all costs. But this is not reality. I remember my parents telling me once as a child “Sometimes you just need a good cry”. But it is hard to allow ourselves time to grieve. It is certainly hard to sit by while someone else is in pain and needs time and space to live into that pain and sadness.
“What do I say? Should I send a card? What should I do?”
Often the next question is “Do they need food?”. Here enters the tradition of taking a casserole.
Once we have experienced great loss and tragedy, we understand how hard it is even simply to draw breath during that time. Your brain power is dedicated to processing the tragedy, the reality that your life is forever changed, not leaving much energy to think of things like errands, feeding the dogs, or even eating. Food becomes a natural way for people to show their love and concern. We recognize how hard it is to attend to such mundane chores as meal planning, and so we arrive at one another’s doorstep with food in hand. Often that’s all we do. We say things like “I’m not staying. I just wanted to drop this by.” or “I can’t come in but wanted you to know I was thinking about you. Don’t worry about the dish. I’ll come back later to get it.”.
For the recipient, the casserole is a comfort. It is an outstretched hand from a friend. Sometimes we eat it, sometimes we freeze it, and sometimes it ends up in the trash with the other uneaten food. We’ve already taken from it the most nourishing thing: that someone loves us and sees our pain and need.
And casseroles particularly have a special way of conjuring warm memories and safety. My mom’s go-to casserole is chicken divan. I have eaten this casserole at family gatherings, on regular weeknights, and nearly every birthday as a child (at my insistence). When I went off to college, it was the one recipe I made sure I had. I have called her numerous times for fresh copies because I can’t find mine. I mostly make it from memory now and only need the written version to give to friends. Simply the smell of this casserole baking in my oven relaxes and soothes me. My stress level lowers as, I’m sure, does my blood pressure. This casserole is comfort.
For the giver, the casserole is also a comfort. The act of assembling a good casserole is more than placing ingredients in a dish. It is a prayer. With each action we fold in hope that our loved one will feel our presence with them, that their pain will ease, that they know they will survive this and that they are not alone. We cook because we don’t know what else to do. We take food because we leave with them more than a meal, we leave our love and well-wishes, our prayers for their comfort and for peace. It answers the question “What can I do?”. With the casserole we leave our spiritual presence in hopes that our friend, our family member, our loved-one will be comforted.
And it works.
As a pastor I have the benefit of hearing both sides. I spend time with families in pain as they process their grief and hear their words of gratitude for the “outpouring of love” they experience. For the cook and friend who wants to comfort, I hear their concern and relief after having delivered a meal and seen the grieving face-to-face. They are comforted by having been able to minister to someone they love and who is hurting, with the hope their presence has eased their friend’s suffering, even if just a little.
When my daughter told me this morning that “When you try to do something you’re afraid of, you just have to hold someone’s hand”, she was telling me not of a time when she reached for a hand, but how she had offered a hand. A friend had come to play and was afraid to jump on our trampoline. Bailey said she got on the trampoline with her and held her hand to show her how to jump. In short order, they both were jumping and giggling.
When we are forced to face that which we have dreaded or feared, we need to know we’re not alone. We crave comfort. And sometimes we don’t want that in the form of someone’s physical presence with us. Sometimes we want most simply to know that they are praying for, hoping for, and loving us. Then we look at our counter and see the ham, the casserole, the pie and see them there, feel them there with us.
A casserole is a simple thing, but it is much more than the sum of its parts. Quite often it is a prayer, an out-stretched hand, an invitation, and a taste of love.
I mentioned that my mom’s chicken divan casserole is my go-to comfort food. While this one was cooking I found myself relaxing more and worrying less. Also, it was all I could do not to eat it. I have never asked my mother where she got the recipe and I don’t want to know. Part of the comfort for me is in thinking of this as my mom’s recipe.
The original recipe is pictured below but here are a few of my cheats:
· I used a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store instead of cooking the chicken myself.
· We buy the big bags of the broccoli florets because it’s one of the veggies my kids eat consistently. If you do the same, then use about 7 cups of frozen florets.
· We like our broccoli a little firmer so I just thaw the broccoli in hot water then put it in the casserole.
· I use the pre-shredded cheese because it’s another refrigerator staple in our house.
· I usually don’t dot the butter on top simply because by the time I get to that part of the recipe I realize I haven’t set the butter out to soften, making it harder to dot. You can cut small slices off of a cold stick and place on top.